Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A sense of space: Thoughts on where I write

In a perfect world, I would have a garden shed reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw or a Key West cottage replete with cats like Ernest Hemingway in which to creatively write and do a little divining. Instead, I have our modest-but-comfortable 1927 California-style bungalow in the hills above the flatlands of Oakland's Dimond District, which has been my home since 1999.

While having a huge chunk of time to focus on writing would be great in that perfect world, finding a good rhythm while writing -- and a sense of space -- is something that challenges me all the time.

A winning combo /
My MacBook and a mug of French roast coffee.
Surrounded by the clamor of everyday life, I do most of my writing sitting at our dining room table. It's me and my MacBook. While there may be nothing special to this space which I reconfigure each day -- after all, it's not a dedicated room but a pop-up work space -- I am surrounded by a variety of photographs, artwork and family mementos. Best of all, when I write -- often during the morning hours -- there's always room at the table for a mug of my favorite French roast coffee. And, I usually have my iPhone and the national edition of The New York Times at arm's reach.

Sometimes, when I write, it's tempting to look out the dining room window that faces the cul-de-sac and do a little curative daydreaming while also observing and absorbing the sights and sounds of the neighborhood. I love hearing the noise of chirping birds that visit the big tree outside. Drawing open the dining room curtains just a little bit allows the sun to freely shine in. It's a bonus if there's a gentle breeze, too.

I like to listen to music and create an ambient soundtrack to fit my creative space. If I'm writing on a weekday between nine and noon, chances are good I'm connected via my iPad to the "Morning Becomes Eclectic" program airing on KCRW.com.

While writing can be a sedentary experience, if I need a change of scenery, sometimes, I merely pick up my laptop and move into the living room and take up space either on the sofa facing the fireplace or plop down in my comfortable Ikea Poang chair.

At the end of the day, I pack up my MacBook and set the dining room table for dinner.

Photograph by Michael Dickens © 2014.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

As close to the bone as filmmaking gets: Ken Burns Presents "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies"


A biography of cancer / First the book,
now the film
Imagine the problems that would be alleviated if a cure for cancer were found.

In the spirit of learning and understanding, last week my wife and I attended a screening of the new Ken Burns Presents "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies," a film by Barak Goodman, at the invitation of KQED, our PBS affiliate, in San Francisco.

The film, a three part, six-hour documentary, will debut next week from March 30-April 1 on PBS -- and I highly recommend you see it.

After all, convening dialogue in the pursuit of lifelong learning can only lead to a better understanding of our world, right?

We saw a 45-minute preview that included portions from all three parts, followed by an interview and a Q & A session with Barak Goodman. The Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated film director reminded us how we are all impacted by cancer and noted how some of us will die because of the deadly disease.

"Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies" is based on physician, researcher, and award-winning science writer Siddhartha Mukherjee's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, which examines cancer with "a cellular biologist's precision, a historian's perspective, and a biographer's passion."

Through Goodman's direction, the film tells the complete story of cancer, "from its first description in an ancient Egyptian scroll to the gleaming laboratories of modern research institutions," according to the program's website. "At six hours, the film interweaves a sweeping historical narrative; with intimate stories about contemporary patients; and an investigation into the latest scientific breakthroughs that may have brought us, at long last, to the brink of lasting cures."


The film combines science and case studies with history -- more than 100 people were interviewed and 700 hours of film were produced over a two-year period -- and, after previewing "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies," it's easy to see the influence filmmaker Ken Burns had on the project as executive producer. Call it the Ken Burns effect, if you will, of panning and zooming from still imagery and using lots of talking heads on camera to tell the story.

"There's a lot of Ken Burns stuff (techniques) in it," said Goodman. "While his finger prints are all over it, the really great thing about Ken is he gave us the space to make the film."

Much of the film took place at the The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Md., and at the Charleston Area Medical center in Charleston, West Virginia.

The film tugs on a lot of heartstrings and emotions. "It was extremely emotionally challenging because we got very, very close to the patients we filmed, some of whom didn't survive their cancer," said Goodman.

In a PBS promo for the film, Burns said that "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies" is "about as close to the bone as filmmaking gets for me. Cancer has been a huge part of my life. There is never a moment in my awareness as a human being that I didn't know that something was desperately wrong with my mother, at 2 1/2 to 3 years. She was sick with cancer. She died when I was 11, almost 12 years old.

"The reason why I do what I do comes from this illness and this death and watching it  happen," he said.

After a 10-year struggle with the disease, Burns' mother died of breast cancer.

Cancer is a monumental and difficult but solvable problem, says Goodman. "We hope the series makes people hope; to not shy away from the disease."

To learn more:
http://video.pbs.org/program/story-cancer-emperor-all-maladies/

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Revisiting: A History of the World in 100 Objects, and the importance of protecting our past during troubled times

Talking points: If great art and architecture belongs to humanity, do we have a responsibility to save it during wartime? If so, should the recent barbaric destruction of Iraq's ancient artifacts by Islamic State militants be treated as a war crime?

What began with the shocking videos that went viral showing Islamic State militants destroying priceless Iraqi antiquities at a Mosul museum has escalated into the wholesale destruction of Iraq's heritage as ancient archeological sites in Nimrud and Hatra lay in ruins. Nimrud is an ancient Assyrian city while Hatra dates to the first century B.C.

Reading about these recent disturbing events brought to mind a book I read a few years ago, A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor. It is a book which upon further review has given me a renewed appreciation for our past and made me realize why we should care about preserving it for future generations. 


From the handaxe to the credit card /
There's a lot we can learn through ordinary objects.
A History of the World in 100 Objects is based on the popular BBC Radio 4 series, and in the book the author "takes a dramatically original approach to the history of humanity" by using objects left behind by previous civilizations -- often accidentally -- and describes them as "prisms through which we can explore past worlds and the lives of the men and women who lived in them."

Imagine a book that is both an intellectual and visual feast, and allows you to travel back in time and across the globe to see how the human experience has shaped the world and been shaped by it over the past two million years.

In February 2012, I wrote about A History of the World in 100 Objects. 

In light of the tragic destruction of antiquities in Iraq, it is worth revisiting what I wrote three years ago so that we may appreciate the heritage of art and its humanity:


A History of the World in 100 Objects begins with the story of a chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Africa, a relic that is between 1.8-2 million years old and is one of the earliest surviving objects made by human hands. This hefty, 707-page book, which we recently checked out from our local public library, concludes with a story about an object from the modern, twenty-first century: a solar-powered lamp and charger manufactured in Shenzhen, Guandong, China, that is representative of the world we live in today.

A History of the World in 100 Objects /
Exploring world history from two million years ago to the present.

According to the book's dust jacket, Neil MacGregor's aim "is not simply to describe these remarkable things, but to show us their significance ~ how a stone pillar tells us about a great Indian emperor preaching tolerance to his people, how Spanish pieces of eight tell us about the beginning of a global currency, or how an early Victorian tea set tells us about the impact of empire."

MacGregor, who has been the director of the British Museum since 2002, writes: "The story is told exclusively through the things that humans have made -- all sorts of things, carefully designed and then either admired and preserved, or used, broken and thrown away. I've chosen just a hundred objects from different points on our journey -- from a cooking pot to a golden galleon, from a Stone Age tool to a credit card, and each object comes from the collection of the British Museum."

Through these 100 objects, MacGregor describes history as a kaleidoscope -- "shifting, interconnected, constantly surprising, and shaping our world today in ways that most of us have never imagined."

At the time of the book's publishing, Carol Vogel of the New York Times wrote: "These objects, some humble, some glorious, embody intriguing tales of politics and power, social history and human behavior."

The British Museum / As I saw it in 2005.
During a 2005 spring vacation trip to London, I took advantage of the opportunity to explore the British Museum. What's truly remarkable about this museum, replete with its Greek Revival facade and first opened to the public in 1759, is that its holdings do not including any paintings. However, what this museum does include is an impressive collection of antiquities. As it turned out, my visit to the British Museum was one of the most enjoyable afternoons I have ever spent at a museum.

Among many things that stood out for me in the breadth of the museum's collections was seeing the Rosetta Stone up close and personal. Like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, everyone crowded around, wanting to catch a glimpse of the Rosetta Stone and photograph it.

The Rosetta Stone, found at el-Rashid, Egypt in 196 B.C., is the 33rd of 100 objects whose story is told by MacGregor and, among visitors to the museum, it is definitely a must-see attraction.

"Every day when I walk through the Egyptian sculpture gallery at the British Museum there are tour guides speaking every imaginable language addressing groups of visitors, all craning to see this object. It is on every visitor's itinerary, and, with the mummies, it's the most popular object in the British Museum," writes MacGregor.

The Rosetta Stone /
The most popular object in
the British Museum.
"Why? It's decidedly dull to look at -- a grey stone about the size of one of those large suitcases you see people trundling around on wheels at airports," adds MacGregor. "The rough edges show that it's been broken from a larger stone, with the fractures cutting across the text that covers one side. And when you read that text, it's pretty dull too -- it's mostly bureaucratic jargon about tax concessions. But, as so often in the Museum, appearances are deceptive."

MacGregor continues: "This dreary bit of broken granite has played a starring role in three fascinating and different stories: the story of the Greek kings who ruled in Alexandria after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt; the story of the French and British imperial competition across the Middle East after Napoleon invaded Egypt; and the extraordinary but peaceful scholarly contest that led to the most famous decipherment in history -- the cracking of hieroglyphics."

What matters now, writes MacGregor, "is not what the stone says but that it says it three times in three different languages: in Classical Greek, the language of the Greek rules and the state administration, and then in two forms of ancient Egyptian: the everyday writing of the people (known as Demotic) and the priestly hieroglyphics which had for centuries baffled Europeans. It was the Rosetta Stone that changed all that; it dramatically opened up the entire world of ancient Egypt to scholarship."

What I find truly amazing after reading the chapter about the Rosetta Stone is that it survived unread through 2,000 years of various occupations, including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Muslim Arabs and Ottoman Turks. Eventually, the 1798 Napoleon-led French military invasion of Egypt ("they wanted to cut the British route to India") yielded the Rosetta Stone. "The French seized the stone as a trophy of war, but it never made it back to Paris. With his fleet destroyed by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, Napoleon himself returned to France, leaving the French army behind. In 1801, the French surrendered to the British and Egyptian generals. The terms of the Treaty of Alexandria included the handing over of antiquities, among them the Rosetta Stone."

Soon, the stone found its way to Great Britain for good after its capture by the British Army where it was presented to the British Museum by King George III. The Rosetta Stone has been displayed in the public domain at the British Museum since 1802.

Today, the Rosetta Stone is freely available for the world's scholars to see. Ironically, it was a French scholar, Jean-Francois Champollion, who finally cracked the stone's hieroglyphics in 1822. For the British Museum's many visitors, who wait patiently like I did on a Sunday afternoon in March 2005 for a fleeting glimpse, seeing the Rosetta Stone is a thrill of a lifetime and a chance opportunity to photograph it for posterity.

Photographs of the British Museum and the Rosetta Stone by Michael Dickens, copyright 2005. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

2015 Question Time: Let's ask the "Memo" blogger


Question Time / Ask the Blogger
As many of you know, I enjoy the art of conversation with my friends on Facebook. I find it to be a great way to get to know this diverse and inclusive group of people better, and I can do it either from the convenience of home or while sipping a cup of coffee at a favorite cafĂ©.

If you think about it, what's not to like about enjoying a cup of French roast coffee, creating an ambient music soundtrack to fill my chat room, and catching up on the world events around me that my Facebook newsfeed sees fit for me to read? And, best of all, I can learn what's on the minds of my friends near and far.

Add to this mix, I occasionally text with a select group of friends via WhatsApp and, sometimes, I like to share conversation by using Skype video, too. It's the kind of multi-tasking I truly enjoy and derive a tremendous amount of benefit from.

Often, I am asked a lot of personal questions, especially by newer friends who want to get to know me better -- and I'm cool about this. Some of these questions are about my blog or other writing projects I may be engaged in at the time. Other times, I'm asked about what I majored in at university (the answer: American History) and, especially from friends where English is their second or third languages, they ask me about how to improve their English-language conversation and writing skills. I don't mind because I'm usually the one asking a lot of questions of my friends. I guess, it's the natural reporter's instinct in me. And, it's only fair to turn the tables every once in a while.

So, here are my answers to five questions I'm often asked:

What book is currently on my bedside table?
The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love and Survival by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen tells the inspirational true story of Lisa Jura, a child prodigy pianist ---- and Golabek's mother -- who escaped Nazi-controlled Vienna for London on the famed Kindertransport during World War II. It's a coming-of-age story of one young girl's survival and how music saved her life. I began reading this wonderful book after seeing Golabek star in her one-woman show The Pianist of Willesden Lane last month at the Berkeley Rep Theatre -- and I haven't been able to put it down. 

What is an unforgettable place I've travelled to in the past year?
In the past calendar year, my out of Bay Area travel has been limited to a summer trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn., and two visits to Seattle -- Labor Day weekend and Christmas. I love visiting both cities. If I could re-phrase the question to "An unforgettable place I'll be traveling to in the next year is," I would definitely say my upcoming trip in mid-June to Vancouver, B.C. to see the U.S. women's national football (soccer) team face Nigeria in the 2015 Women's World Cup. I've visited Vancouver several times over the past 20 years -- including a week's stay during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games-- and I love walking through Stanley Park and shopping and dining on Granville Island. 

What are my favorite comfort clothes?
A pair of Land's End traditional fit medium indigo blue jeans, Uniqlo black long-sleeve t-shirt, a Land's End half-zip black fleece top and a pair of classic Stan Smith Adidas sneakers. Sometimes, I'll switch out and wear navy blue instead of black for the long-sleeve t-shirt and half-zip fleece, but I think you get the picture of what I love to wear: comfortable casual clothes.

What is my favorite guilty-pleasure snack food?
My favorite go-to guilty-pleasure snack food that always puts a smile on my face is: Chicago Mix popcorn from Trader Joe's. For those not familiar, Chicago Mix is part salty cheese-flavored popcorn, part classic caramel-flavored popcorn. Throw them together and mix 'em up and you've got one great guilty-pleasure snack food that tastes wonderful.

What kind of music always puts me in a good mood?
I love to listen to music by Pink Martini. This Portland, Ore.-based "little orchestra" is fronted by bandleader and pianist Thomas Lauderdale and it features the vocalists China Forbes and Storm Large. The band's music crosses many genres, including: classical, latin, jazz and classic pop. I've seen Pink Martini perform in concert here in the Bay Area on numerous occasions and their shows are like urban music travelogues. A typical concert includes songs sung in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Turkish, among many. As an aside, another reason I like Pink Martini is because they are supportive of liberal political causes such as: civil rights, affordable housing, the environment, libraries, parks, education and public broadcasting. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Remembering Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha: 'She exceeded our expectations'

Deah Shaddy Barakat (23), Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha (21), and
Razan Mohammed Abu-Salha (19) /
They were Americans just like you and me.

Muslim Americans make extraordinary contributions to our country every day and, yet, we are left asking ourselves why three young university students, who were Muslim Americans, were shot to death in Chapel Hill, N.C., earlier this month.

It has left many Muslim Americans across my country worried and afraid.

This brutal crime that took the lives of these kind, young and exemplary citizens -- a husband, his newlywed wife and her sister -- came just weeks after other recent anti-Muslim attacks in Europe that were carried out in an apparent response to the January murders (committed by Muslim extremists) of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris.

Teacher and student /
Mussarut Jabeen (L) and Yusor Mohammed
Abu-Salha together in happier times.
"Growing up in America has been such a blessing," said one of the slain students, Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha, during a 2014 NPR StoryCorps oral history project interview that resurfaced days after her death. Accompanied to the StoryCorps booth in Raleigh, N.C. along with her third grade elementary school teacher, Mussarut Jabeen, Abu-Salha explained: "Although, in some ways, I stand out because of the hijab, there's still so many ways that I feel so embedded in the fabric that is our culture. Here, we're all one ... Open, compassionate ... That's the beautiful thing here ... It doesn't matter where you come from. There're so many different people from so many different places of different backgrounds and religions. But here we're all one -- one culture."

Among my many Muslim friends from the North Africa countries of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, whom I've become acquainted with over the past several years via Facebook, they are united by their faith and share in mourning the lives of their Muslim American sisters and brother half a world and many time zones away, too. They insist -- and I agree -- that no one should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship. 

Yet, I'm left wondering and I'm sure others are thinking: How do you convey a message of tolerance throughout a large country like mine that's comprised of so many different religious faiths and political attitudes, especially when certain cross-sections of the American public -- including certain American media organizations -- are not showing tolerance themselves and, worse, come across as Islamophobic? 

My Muslim friends are human and compassionate -- and they share many of the same hopes and feelings just like you and me. None of them are religious fanatics. However, they are very worried about the escalation of deadly violence shown by Muslim extremists, who seem to have taken their Islamic faith hostage through acts of terrorism across the world. 

Through dozens of conversations covering countless hours, thanks to my open-mindedness and being a good listener, many of my Muslim friends have shared in confidence with me things they might not ordinarily be comfortable in sharing with their friends or family. So, I can attest to their honesty, their compassion, their sense of wanting to have a better life than their parents and to pass along a better life to their children. Sound familiar? First and foremost, together, we've worked hard to build a sense of trust and, also, to share the love of our friendship. 

Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha /
On the occasion of her 2014 graduation
 from her beloved North Carolina State
University in Raleigh, N.C.
I invite each of you to try reaching out to connect with a Muslim or somebody of a different religious faith than your own -- and truly get to know them and to learn about their faith. Take off your blinders and try to establish a dialogue and build trust. You'll feel better for making the effort.

During their StoryCorps interview, Jabeen recalled: "I remember Yusor as a little girl when she was in third grade. She had this sense of giving that really makes her different from other children."

In December 2014, Yusor graduated from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. 

In closing, Jabeen said: "I would like people to know and remember (Yusor) as a practicing Muslim, as a daughter and, above all, as a good human being. You know, when we write our comments on report cards, we say they exceeded our expectations. She exceeded our expectations."

Now, I hope you will take a few moments of your time to pause and listen to the voice of Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha from her entire StoryCorps interview: 


I'm not ashamed to say that listening to Yusor's beautiful and loving voice -- so full of life and hope less than a year ago -- brought me to tears.

Photos: Courtesy of Facebook and StoryCorps.org.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Of shock and sadness: It was a bad week for journalism

Journalism has been called story telling with a purpose. The past week was not a very kind one for the craft of journalism, a profession I love dearly, or for its practitioners. It was a week filled full of shock and sadness. Unfortunately, there's not been much time for reflection.

"This week has just been overwhelming," said Betsy West, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, recently quoted by the website pix11.com. "Some of the most tragic news that just keeps happening one after the other, after the other."

Brian Williams
The week started badly when America's most trusted and honored news anchor, Brian Williams of NBC News, was found to have lied about an incident in the Iraq War in which he said that a helicopter that he was riding in was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and almost crashed. In fact, it was another gunship that was downed.

Williams's "misremembered" past coupled with a less-than-satisfactory on-air apology earned him a six month suspension without pay from the peacock network.

Jon Stewart
Then, Jon Stewart, America's best media and political satirist, announced that he was leaving as anchor of the Emmy Award-winning -- and influential -- The Daily Show later this year, ending a wonderful 16-year run on Comedy Central. His announcement sent shock waves through social media, lighting up Twitter and Facebook

"It's been an absolute privilege. It's been the honor of my professional life, and I thank you for watching it, for hate watching it, whatever reason you were tuning in for," said Stewart in sharing his decision to leave The Daily Show.

Bob Simon
A day after Stewart's surprise, Bob Simon of CBS News and 60 Minutes fame, who established himself as one of America's heroic war correspondents covering difficult conflicts in all corners of the world, was killed in a tragic car accident in New York City.

On the night of his death, CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley, one of Simon's colleagues on 60 Minutes, tweeted: "One of the great writers of a generation has passed. Bob Simon was a journalist of extraordinary courage."

David Carr
Finally, David Carr, America's pre-eminent media columnist at The New York Times -- and a big champion of social media -- died in his own newsroom Thursday night after moderating a public panel hosted by his newspaper. Ironically, his last "Media Equation" column, published three days before he died, was about Brian Williams and focused on the trials and tribulations of being a celebrity journalist.

"I've never experienced a week where people were talking about journalism so much and about the importance of journalism," said West, formerly an award-winning member at 60 Minutes and a friend of Simon's.

Although the impact of all four events struck a chord with me, Stewart's surprise announcement and Simon's quick and sudden death -- in an avoidable car crash -- resonated with me the most.

It's not often that you get to leave something you're passionate about on your own terms and while at the top of your game, but that's what Stewart is doing -- leaving on a career high note. Since 1999, Stewart has informed us and entertained us in a way few have been able to do. He's championed causes, nurtured talent -- think Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver -- and turned his show into a vehicle for showcasing the best literary authors in the world, thereby rekindling the public's interest -- and my interest, too -- in reading books. And, what's not to like about Stewart's way he ends each broadcast with "a moment of Zen"?

While it's too early to speculate who will succeed Stewart as host of The Daily Show, one thing's certain: Stewart has set the bar awful high -- being "a comic genius, generous with his time and talent" in the words of Comedy Central's president -- and he will be dearly missed.

As for Simon, he was an esteemed broadcast journalist -- an award-winning storyteller without peer. The 73-year-old legendary CBS News and 60 Minutes correspondent, who started at the network in 1967, became renowned for his international coverage, including Vietnam, the Middle East and Israel. He covered many major news events and conflicts, both in the U.S. and throughout the world. As a war correspondent, Simon was captured by Iraqi forces near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border during the opening days of the Persian Gulf War in January 1991. He and his crew were freed after being held captive for 40 days.

I admired Simon's style and his ability to craft a story. For the past 19 years, he was a mainstay on the CBS Sunday night news magazine 60 Minutes and was equally outstanding narrating a serious or human interest storyThe most recent of his 27 Emmy Awards was a story he reported for 60 Minutes about an orchestra in Paraguay whose members made instruments out of trash.

Last Sunday night, Simon's last piece for 60 Minutes aired. It led the broadcast and told a story about a potential cure for the Ebola virus. The story was produced by Simon's daughter, Tanya. At the end of the show's broadcast, Simon's colleague, Steve Kroft, his voice trembling ever so slightly, looked at the camera and spoke these words: "All of us lost him -- his family, his colleagues here at 60 Minutes and all of you who have watched this broadcast over the years. We lost his curiosity, his unparalleled writing ability, his calm bravery under fire. And we lost his sense of justice and his sense of the absurd -- both of which he brought to so much of his reporting."

Indeed, Simon will be sorely missed. His legacy will endure through his storytelling.

Looking back, it has been a week when there's been both a greatness and emptiness in truth within the journalism industry.

Photos: Courtesy Google images.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Lessons in life: The Pianist of Willesden Lane


In her one-woman show, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, piano virtuoso
Mona Golabek chronicles her mother's escape from the Holocaust.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is the true story of Lisa Jura, a 14-year-old Jewish musical prodigy who dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. Set in Vienna in 1938 and in London during the Blitzkrieg, this story of hope and perseverance includes some of the world's most beloved piano music. It has been turned into a one-woman play starring internationally celebrated pianist Mona Golabek, Jura's daughter, that is enjoying an encore run this month at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre following a critically-acclaimed New York premiere.

This poignant, 90-minute tribute is based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane, written by Golabek and Lee Cohen. It's a coming-of-age story of one young girl's survival and how music saved her life.

My wife and I attended a performance of The Pianist of Willesden Lane last Friday evening in Berkeley, Calif., in which Golabek slips into the persona of her mother at age 14 during the tumult of adolescence and war, and we both found it to be a very passionate and enriching experience.


Imagine if you will, being confronted with the horror of being Jewish in Nazi-occupied Vienna, and, then, being the chosen one among three siblings to be saved from the Holocaust with the one ticket your family had for the Kindertransport, a rescue mission that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Lisa Jura's parents were forced to make a difficult family decision. They chose to send the gifted Lisa to London and safety.

In a hostel on Willesden Lane, Lisa fought to realize her musical dreams. Her music became a beacon of hope for the many displaced children of the war. From Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A Minor" to Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" to Debussy's "Clair de Lune", which Jura later passed down to her daughters, each represented the power of music to uplift the human spirit.

"My mother, Lisa Jura, was my best friend," writes Golabek in the play's program notes. "She taught my sister, Renee, and me to play the piano. We loved our piano lessons with her."

And, yet, they became more than piano lessons -- they were lessons in life.

"They were filled with stories of a hostel in London and the people she knew there," said Golabek. "Her stories were our folklore, bursting with bits and pieces of wonderful characters who bonded over her music."

Sitting at the piano as a child, Golabek recalled, "I would close my eyes and listen to her lilting voice and imagine her world. She always believed 'each piece of music tells a story.'"

The virtuoso Golabek performs a dozen different pieces of classical music plus a few light standards, sitting center stage with her Steinway grand piano as her co-star, during The Pianist of Willesden Lane. The play was adapted and directed by Hershey Felder. Throughout, there's an infusion of hope shaped by the life-affirming power of music. A classical piano repertoire has the power to do just that. The three movements of Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A Minor" serve as a beginning, middle and ending to Jura's story in The Pianist of Willesden Lane.

As Golabek appears center stage at the play's beginning, she says: "My name is Lisa Jura, and I'm 14 years old." Her voice has transformed into a girlish lilt with a slight accent. "It's Vienna, 1938, and it's a Friday afternoon. I'm preparing for the most important hour of my week -- my piano lesson."...


In the introduction to The Children of Willesden Lane, Golabek wrote: "My mother had lived an incredible journey and she had infused her music with everything she had experienced: her childhood with loving parents in Vienna before World War II; her escape to England aboard the legendary Kindertransport; her struggle to study her music while a war raged around her; and, always, her endless fascination with that ramshackle building at 243 Willesden Lane, the hostel in the London suburbs where she lived as a young refugee separated from her family."

As she boarded the train in Vienna, Lisa's mother told her: "Never stop playing and I will be with you every step of the way." Jura took those words to heart. Her legacy has inspired Golabek's music and her own life. "Music will give you strength," her mother reassured her. "It will be your best friend in life."

In each piece of music during The Pianist of Willesden Lane, there is a story. And, through Golabek's narrative and performance, we discover what those stores are and their importance. She says of her mother: "I pass along her story in the hope that it may enrich the passion and music that lie in each of us."

Indeed, as the audience stood and applauded Golabek at the conclusion of her heartfelt performance of The Pianist of Willesden Lane, there weren't many dry eyes on this rainy winter's night. What we had just witnessed was, indeed, a deeply moving and inspiring tribute to the power of a mother's love for her children.




The music played in The Pianist of Willesden Lane:
• Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16; first movement.
• Beethoven: Sonata, op. 27, no. 2; "Moonlight"
• Debussy: Clair de Lune; "Moonlight" from Suite bergamasque.
• Chopin: Nocturne in B-Flat Major, op. 9, no. 1.
• Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16; second movement.
• Bach: Partita #1 in B-Flat Major, BMV 825.
• Grieg: Piano Concerto, op. 16; first movement Cadenza.
• Bach: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, BMW 147.
• Audition scene: Bach Partita #1 in B-Flat Major; Beethoven Piano Sonata #21 in C Major, op. 53 ("Waldstein"); Chopin Scherzo #2 in B-Flat Minor, op. 31; Scriabin Etude in D-Sharp Minor, op. 3, no. 2.
• Gershwin: "Strike Up the Band".
•Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)".
• Rachmaninoff: Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, op. 3, no. 2.
• Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 18; third movement.

Photos: Courtesy of mellopix.com and Google images. Videos: Courtesy of YouTube.com.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

2014: It was a very good year to be in my pictures


A selfie / It was a very good year to be in my pictures.

As many of you who follow me through A Tuesday Night Memo or via Facebook know, I'm an avid photographer. 

Whenever I travel across the country or abroad -- or even just to go to a University of California, Berkeley sporting event or out to eat, I make it a habit to bring my camera (a Canon PowerShot A570 IS) with me. And, thanks to getting an iPhone four years ago, I now have two sources for shooting photographs. 

Taking pictures has matured considerably as photography has morphed from film to digital, and it's become an easier and more affordable hobby. Once was the time when I worried about how many rolls of film to buy -- and what speed -- for a vacation. Then, making sure I didn't misplace any rolls after I shot them.

Once I became a digital photographer about 10 years ago, it allowed me to become my own editor. So, if I'm not happy with a picture, I can delete it and re-shoot it, then edit it for clarity. No longer do I have to worry about whether the film I shot of the Eiffel Tower or Westminster Abbey is in focus or not. 

Thanks to social media sites like Facebook, uploading and sharing photos with a large group of friends has become fast and simple -- and for me, personally, it's become a daily exercise in sharing my photography with others through my timeline: "It's what's on my mind."

Each year, I take more than a thousand photographs of people, places and things. In revisiting the photo albums I've shot over the past 12 months, I've pulled together a group of photos that I'm pretty excited about. They cover a variety of things important and interesting to me: Flowers and nature, sports, music and the urban landscapes of cities I've visited like San Francisco and Seattle. 

You may recognize some of these photos from appearing on my Facebook page or in my blog. Click on each photograph to see them enlarged.

I hope you enjoy the exhibit and I welcome your thoughts.

Cheers and Happy 2015!

Brittany Boyd and the University of California, Berkeley women's basketball team
face the USC Women of Troy at Haas Pavilion last January.

Mikayla Lyles (L) and Toni Kokenis / The Cal and Stanford basketball rivals
created a pair of panel discussions on support for LGBT inclusion in sports
that took place on the Cal and Stanford campuses last February.

A clash of mascots / The Stanford Tree and Cal's Oski Bear promote
a little school spirit for their respective teams during a Cal-Stanford
women's basketball game at Haas Pavilion last February.

Early morning beauty / A mid-winter sunrise as seen from my patio deck.

At Stitches West / A beautiful yarn display from A Verb For Keeping Warm
on display at 2014 Stitches West in Santa Clara, Calif. last February.

The home office / My MacBook Pro logged in to Facebook, a cup of French roast
coffee and a WriterCoach Connection tutoring assignment.

A rainbow of colors / Sharing the beauty of one of
our roses in our backyard garden.

All rise / A truly incredible spring sunrise as viewed from our patio deck.

Fun in the sun and sand / Cal's Joan Colairo (L) and Adrienne Gehan
playing sand volleyball  at the University's Clark Kerr Courts last spring.

Easter Sunday / The altar at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral last April.

Enjoying Bumbershoot / Listening to music at the Starbucks
Stage during the 2014 Bumbershoot festival in Seattle. 

On stage / Valerie June played a distinctive blend of rural roots and country
music on the Starbucks Stage at the 2014 Bumbershoot festival in Seattle. 

The Seattle Space Needle / The iconic Emerald City
landmark as seen on a cloudy Labor Day.

A summer night of sound / Enjoying Bumbershoot after dark as Neon Trees
plays an "upbeat collection of sleek, modern alternative pop songs powered
by singer/songwriter Tyler Glenn's bright melodies, huge choruses, and
witty lyrics about the challenges of finding love in the digital age."

A clear sky / Throughout the year, our clear skies over the Bay Area afford
us an opportunity for moon gazing.

Up close and personal with the Nutcracker / Celebrating
Christmas at the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco.

The Tree of Hope / Celebrating Christmas
at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

A San Francisco treat / A cable car climbs Nob Hill on Powell Street
at the intersection of California Street.

Christmas in San Francisco / A view of the Union Square
Christmas tree.

My friend Joslynn Celestine Mathis-Reed's MFA thesis choreography notes
for her performance of "Narrowed Mind" at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.

A celebration of orange / Sharing a vibrant orange rose from
our backyard garden.

Connecting community with public space / Public, a San Francisco-based
urban bicycle design and gear company is making bicycle riding more
enjoyable, practical and chic.

Looking deep into the power and beauty of nature /
A eucalyptus tree near Shakespeare Garden in
San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. 

Dreaming my future / Enjoying a Peet's caffe mocha
at the Emeryville Public Market.


All photographs by Michael Dickens © 2014.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Welcoming the return of the winter season to our garden

Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful;
they are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul.
~ Luther Burbank

Calla lily / A welcome sight to our garden each winter.

It's only the second full week of the New Year, but there's a characteristic pattern that's become noticeable each winter day here. Our Bay Area mornings are chilly, and the afternoons are crisp but sunny. The days are mostly dry. It's a welcoming time.

The past couple of Saturday mornings following breakfast have been reserved for spending time in our garden, battling the sprouting oxalis that have been overtaking our iris beds inch by inch as well as the grassy area that surrounds our house and our rose beds, too. Fighting the colorful oxalis happens every year after it's been raining -- and the month between our recent Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays here in Oakland was a very wet one, indeed.

While most of our rose bushes have been dormant -- we usually trim back the branches near the end of the year -- a few have already become active, such as our All That Jazz and our Pristine rose bushes. 

One thing I've enjoyed about winter gardening is welcoming the return of our calla lilies. Right now, there are about six of them in various stages of blooming. By spring, that number should multiply to about two dozen, bringing much joy to the usually quiet east side of our house.

As the beauty of the sun glistens over our backyard garden, it's a delight -- more than ever -- to photograph our winter flowers.

Photograph by Michael Dickens © 2014.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Happy New Year 2015 -- Every day we write the book


Our backyard garden was filled with many lovely roses last year,
none more beautiful than this rainbow-colored one.

This is one of my favorite photographs I took in 2014.

We are almost a week into 2015.

Tomorrow is the seventh blank page of a 365-page,

year-long book that each of us will author.

All of us began the New Year last Thursday with a clean slate, 

which is a good thing.

Hopefully, each of us will take the time to write a thoughtful book, 

be it a memoir or a best-selling novel,

day by day, page by page.

As we look back on 2014, we bid it a fond farewell. 

No regrets.

 With 2015 coming into clear view, we welcome its challenges.

Remember, the words of Ecclesiastes, who said:

"The race is not to the swift,

nor the battle to the strong."

Life is to be enjoyed day by day,

 one day at a time.

Take time for reading, listen to good music,

master a hobby,

talk to good friends -- and listen to them, too.

Here's wishing you and your loved ones a Happy New Year.

May each of you enjoy cheers, love and peace on Earth

in the New Year ahead.

Photograph by Michael Dickens © 2014.